More than 500,000 students who are in the top half of their high school class never get a college degree or complete a certificate program, according to an analysis released Wednesday by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce. Those 500,000 students also represent about one-third of students who scored 1000 or higher on the SAT, another way of defining top-performing students, it found.
The findings add to other research indicating that the U.S. effectively has two higher education systems: One elite system with more resources where students are generally successful and one that is non-selective with fewer resources where students are more likely to struggle. The college admissions industrial complex limits access to the former — even in many cases shutting out qualified students.
This is a troubling sign for the U.S. economy and society, in addition to the price paid by the lower income, but high-achieving, students. The U.S. is losing out on $400 billion in wages because students capable of college work aren’t getting degrees, the analysis found.
“The notion that there are only a small number of people who are qualified for selective colleges is a myth,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown Center. Many students who are qualified to attend a well-resourced school aren’t able to get in, “because the competition for places at those colleges is so overwrought and not really based on preparedness at all.”
For one, elite colleges are often looking to boost their average standardized test score — a signal of prestige and selectivity — and so they’ll admit students with the highest test scores possible at the expense of students whose test scores are high enough to indicate that they’d be successful at one of these schools, Carnevale said.
Students with astronomically high test scores typically skew relatively wealthy, putting students who don’t have access to expensive test prep courses and other resources at a disadvantage. About 47% of top performing students who never get a credential are low-income, according to the Georgetown analysis. Higher income students often end up in better public school districts and their families are more likely to afford tutoring or other extras that can boost a student’s resume.
At the same time, students with relatively low test scores, but other intangibles — like a certain talent, such as playing an instrument or sport, or a social connection — may also end up getting into selective schools, again to the detriment of talented low-income students.
“Is there more social value in letting in the minority or low-income kid who is performing above expectations, given their background? Or letting in the kid with a 1300 [SAT score] purely to keep your test score average up?” Carnevale said. “The benefit to the school in raising the test score is it makes it more selective, the social value is much higher if you could admit the kids who could do the work.”
Low-income and minority students are, as a result, “being funneled” into nonselective four-year schools and community colleges, Carnevale said. These schools typically have fewer resources to help students make it through, like well-paid faculty and student support services, which explains why many of their students don’t make it to graduation.
Obviously, this dynamic turns into a long-term problem for the lower income students. They don’t get the earning power that comes with a degree but are often saddled with the debt that comes with pursuing it.
“There’s a huge loss of talent, but more to the point, given that more than half these kids are disadvantaged either by class or by race there’s an equity deficit created here,” he said.